Protesters lift Thai airports siege

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The Independent Online

Victorious anti-government protesters lifted their siege of Bangkok's two airports today while the ousted government's leaders met to decide on a caretaker prime minister to lead Thailand.

The country's immediate crisis, which virtually severed the kingdom's air links to the outside world for a week, appeared to be over and the People's Alliance for Democracy said it was ending six months of daily anti-government protests.

But the alliance warned it would be on the streets again if a new government tried to return to its past policies.

A court decision yesterday forced the country's prime minister from office and disbanded the three top ruling coalition parties. But they quickly were reconstituted under different guises and leaders met today to choose a caretaker prime minister.

A spokesman for the protest alliance, Parnthep Wonguapan, said protesters at Bangkok's international and domestic airports were ordered to "clean up and pack their belongings" before leaving the two sites.

The first commercial airliner - a flight by the national airline Thai Airways from the resort island of Phuket - was scheduled to land at Suvarnabhumi international airport at 0700 GMT, said airline spokeswoman Ajcharnaporn na Songhkla.

In what was billed as a hand-over ceremony, Vudhibhandhu Vichairatana, the chairman of the Airports of Thailand, hugged and shook hands with alliance leaders in front of a Buddhist shrine as protesters danced to folk music and trucks loaded with their gear rolled out of the airport.

"We want to clean up the airport before we leave. We want PAD (the alliance) to have a good image," said Bow Piyapat, a souvenir maker, as she wielded her mop around rows of check-in counters at Suvarnabhumi.

But the image of the alliance as well as Thailand in general has taken a bad battering, especially among some 300,000 travellers still stranded by last week's airport takeovers. The months of protests and political uncertainty is also hammering the economy and vital tourism industry.

At least six people have been killed and scores injured in clashes in recent months.

The protesters - who seek to eliminate the one-person, one-vote system - is also seeking to purge the nation of the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

They accuse Mr Thaksin of massive corruption and seeking to undermine the country's revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Mr Thaksin was ousted by a September 2006 military coup, but the alliance alleges that governments voted into office since then have been proxies for the exiled Mr Thaksin.

"The PAD will return if another (Thaksin) proxy government is formed or anyone tries to amend the constitution or the law to whitewash some politicians or to subdue the monarch's royal authority," one of the protest leaders, Sondhi Limthongkul, warned.

The country's Constitutional Court found Somchai Wongsawat's People's Power Party, the Machima Thipatai party and the Chart Thai party guilty of committing fraud in the December 2007 elections that brought the coalition to power.

"Dishonest political parties undermine Thailand's democratic system," said Constitutional Court President Chat Chalavorn.

The ruling sent Mr Somchai, Mr Thaksin's brother-in-law, and 59 executives of the three parties into political exile, barring them from politics for five years. Of the 59, 24 are politicians who will have to abandon their parliamentary seats.

"It is not a problem. I was not working for myself. Now I will be a full-time citizen," Mr Somchai told reporters following the ruling.

Government spokeswoman Suparat Nakboonnam said Deputy Prime Minister Chaowarat Chandeerakul automatically took over Mr Somchai's job pending selection of a caretaker prime minister. She said Parliament would have to endorse the pick within 30 days.

A meeting today among the three ousted parties, which vowed to stick together in a coalition, was being held in a northern Bangkok suburb and it was unclear when they would decide on the caretaker prime minister.

Mr Somchai had become increasingly isolated in recent weeks. Neither the army, a key player in Thai politics, nor King Bhumibol offered firm backing.